Goodbye, Ms. Russ

Thanks to Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Making Light for the news. Damn it. 

Long before I became a feminist in any explicit way, I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.

—Joanna Russ

When I was somewhat younger, my parents held one of their dinner parties, which are always more of a family affair than a formal do, no matter who is invited, so we kids mingled with the adults, or not, as we chose.  At one of these, I wandered through the living room, reading Brave New World, which I’d just found on Dad’s bookshelf.*

One of the guests stopped me, looked at the cover, and asked me how I liked it.

“I think the girl is kind of dumb,” I said. 

A few days later, Dad handed me a couple of books and told me that one of his colleagues in the psychology department wanted me to try them out and tell him what I thought.

One of them was The Female Man by Joanna Russ.  The other was a collection of Ms. Russ’s stories: The Zanzibar Cat.

The first thing I thought was that these stories were far more interesting than the one I’d been reading.  The second thing I thought was that these female characters aren’t dumb. 

Some are powerless, or think they are, at least at first, and some have been socially conditioned as deeply as Huxley’s Lenina Crowne . . . but all of them have brains.  Which they use. 

And some of them have a lot of righteous rage.  Which they also use.

This book is written in blood.

Is it written entirely in blood?

No, some of it is written in tears.

Are the blood and tears all mine?

Yes, they have been in the past. but the future is a different matter. As the bear swore in Pogo after having endured a pot shoved on her head, being turned upside down while still in the pot, a discussion about her edibility, the lawnmowering of her behind, and a fistful of ground pepper in the snoot, she then swore a mighty oath on the ashes of her mothers (i.e. her forebears) grimly but quietly while the apples from the shaken apple tree above her dropped bang thud on her head:


—Joanna Russ, The Female Man

Joanna Russ opened my eyes not only to gender roles, but to amazing writing.  In the early ’80s, it wasn’t exactly strange to me that a woman would write science fiction, and kick-ass science fiction at that.  But Ms. Russ’s voice—that scathing, brilliant tone—was a revelation.

I had to give both books back to the professor, but the library provided even more, which I ended up buying as I found them.  I finally found a copy of The Zanzibar Cat about a decade later in a used bookstore in Oxford, Ohio. It’s part of my core collection, along with The Female Man**  and The Two of Them, which may be my favorite.

I always meant to read How to Suppress Women’s Writing, but never followed through.  I think I’d know what Ms. Russ would say to that. 

I’ll look for it at the library tomorrow.


* The unwritten rule in our house was that anything in print was fair game, as long as I went to my parents with any questions.

**It was part of the optional reading list in one of my classes—I used it  in a paper on gender roles in fiction, comparing it with Virginia’s Woolf’s Orlando—which was much harder going.